After news reports broke that a SEAL team’s raucous 4th of July party had gotten them sent home from an Iraq deployment, the head of Special Operations Command had enough. He ordered an extensive review of the command, tasked with discovering what was eating away at the professionalism special operations had touted for decades.
What they found, according to a 69-page report released Tuesday, is that an obsession with tactical skill and deployments over everything has eroded leadership across the command. Coupled with an insidious sense of entitlement, the environment across SOCOM’s components has fostered the rash of misconduct scandals that have plagued the organization over the past few years.
“Knowing what is right requires a leadership presence and commitment and understanding,” SOCOM boss Army Gen. Richard Clarke told reporters Tuesday. “And most importantly, training the leadership that is junior to them on those same things.”
There are 16 specific recommendations laid out in the report, but the larger issue will be changing a deep-seated and closely-protected culture that values engagement of enemies in direct combat to the detriment of nearly all else.
“Sometimes character is not held in as high regard as competence,” Clarke said. “And the two have to be linked.”
The breakdown in conduct can be traced to the high operational tempo of units across the special operations forces, according to the report, but the conclusion is not that operators are burnt out and thus lacking judgement.
Rather, the hunger to close with and kill the enemy has overtaken not only the wide range of missions operators are trained for, but the organizational fortitude that is supposed to keep all military units humming along, regardless of their expertise.
The report also does not mention behavioral health. While it’s been well established that post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury ― even mild jolts from weapons training ― can affect judgment and impulse control, Clarke told Military Times that he hopes they aren’t an excuse for unchecked misconduct.
To that end, he said, part of SOCOM’s follow-up to this initial review will include advocating for behavioral health resources, while encouraging leaders to root out bad behavior before it becomes a detriment.
The problem with SOCOM has been, according to the report, that tactical prowess and combat experience are so valued that leaders have seen fit to pluck their most prized hitters from their regular units, or from their key rotations as instructors.
As a result, tightly-knit units in the beginning or middle of their training cycles are seeing their leaders take off for months at a time, leaving them to train themselves and maintain their own good order. And in the case of instructors, who are selected for those jobs because of their leadership ability, trainees are not getting the best guidance they could be.
“Due to the aforementioned absent and misapplied leaders and senior noncommissioned officers, many junior officers and developing enlisted leaders struggle to grasp the fundamentals of officer-enlisted relationships, mentorship practices, accountability and discipline,” according to the report.
And that hero worship of those salty veterans presents its own issues.
“In return, those who did deploy forward, specifically in some degree of combat, are held as almost an infallible standard bearer for the rest of the organization to emulate ― seemingly regardless of if it is a positive or negative standard," the report found.
At the same time, the review found that some members of the force are letting the “special” label go to their heads, starting with their first days in the military.
“Several SOF career fields offer paths for direct accession and are segregated with other SOF candidates during initial entry training,” according to the report, adding that “these programs possibly foster an unhealthy sense of entitlement as a result of special treatment and facilities.”
When a service member starts out a career with certain privileges, then grows up in an environment where operators are entitled to special health and fitness programs, special training facilities and even special grooming standards, the report found that separation from the conventional military experience can accompany a gap in leadership and accountability to match.
To make matters worse, they found, during that period, there can be such an obsession with running the fastest or doing the most pull-ups that professional development, and an acculturation to military core values ― tenets like honor, respect, humility and so forth ― can fall by the wayside.
There appears to be a “lack of emphasis on professional development and personal maturity,” according to the report, as training and leadership education has been focused on tactical skills, rather than managing people.
All of these factors have contributed to brutal headlines in recent years, from the alleged murder of a Green Beret by a Navy SEAL and Marine Raider, to the cases of now-retired Special Warfare Operator Chief Eddie Gallagher and Army Maj. Matt Golsteyn, as well as lesser known cases of Special Forces soldiers smuggling cocaine or perpetrating physical and sexual abuse on family members.
“The force exhibits ― at times ― high risk behavior which has contributed to some of the recent incidents of misconduct and unethical behavior,” according to the report.
In the cases of Gallagher and Golsteyn, whom Trump granted clemency in November, Clarke told reporters that he didn’t see the president’s actions as sending mixed messages to his troops.
“They know what right is,” he said. “They know what the Law of Armed Conflict is, they understand rules of engagement and the Uniform Code of Military Justice – and they’re going to hold up to that.”
The issues are not systemic, according to Marine Brig. Gen. Frank Donovan said, but they are seen in every component of SOCOM.
“The junior elements of the force are looking for someone to step in, in a lot of ways,” he said. “The problem is, the middle level has kind of grown up in this environment. They’re kind of struggling on how to reset themselves.”
It’s a “bad apples, bad basket” phenomenon, in many ways.
“So you’re not chasing individuals," he said. “You’ve got to identify why this is happening? Why are individuals allowed to act like this downrange?”
A review of reviews
For the comprehensive review, SOCOM set up an advisory team of former SOF personnel, Defense Department leadership and academic subject matter experts to organize and analyze the results.
Then they deployed a review team of currently serving troops, both SOF and conventional, to do 55 one-week site visits to interview about 2,000 members of the organization, from junior enlisted to senior officers.
While it started as a culture and ethics review, Donovan said, he shifted gears after a few weeks in the field, finding that the real breakdown was in leadership, discipline and accountability.
It is the culmination of several reviews over the past few years. Going back to 2018, both Army Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Command have launched their own internal reviews, after a spate of headlines featuring the criminal exploits of Special Forces soldiers and Navy SEALs.
“Recent incidents in our formation have called our ethics and professionalism into question, and threaten to undermine the trust bestowed on us by the American people and our senior leadership,” USASOC boss Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette wrote in a November 2018 memo to his forces.
On top of those, Congress ordered two ethics and professionalism reviews, the most recent of which was submitted in March 2019, finding that SOCOM units were up to par on their training and education, but not publicly offering any details of what might need improving.
More broadly, SOCOM had not done a truly expansive review since its 2011 Preservation of the Force and Family report, which followed ― among other incidents ― a string of murdered Special Forces wives at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
That report’s findings focused predominantly on building resilience in special operators, prompting funding for health and nutrition programs to make sure they took care of themselves and got enough sleep to recover from the physical toll of deployments.
In the following years, behavioral health in SOF also saw more effort, but according to the report released Tuesday, the promise of Preservation of the Force and Family fell short.
“Selective implementation of the recommended actions temporarily alleviated some symptoms, but the larger institutional issues (employment structure), those most critical to bringing about and sustaining meaningful change, did not receive sustained understanding, attention or advocacy at the appropriate level,” the report found.
Indeed, op tempo only continued to soar, particularly with the emergence of ISIS in 2014.
Now, Clarke said, there are fewer SOF troops deployed around the world than in the previous few years, and the command is working to achieve a 2:1 ratio for deployment vs. reset time by next year.
At the same time, his component commanders will continue to report on their progress implementing the report’s recommendations, and more action will follow if new issues arise.
Breaking the cycle
Going forward, Clarke said, the expectation is that leaders will be more hands-on with their troops and take advantage of opportunities to intervene before misbehavior becomes a crime.
Among the recommendations are directions to take a broad look at SOCOM’s missions and requirements, to make sure that Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force operators are doing the missions they’re best suited for.
That would include bringing home excess deployed troops, and centralizing management at SOCOM headquarters, so that one office is looking at everyone deployed and assuring that no one is doubling up on one mission.
As far as leadership training, the report suggests create a SOF-specific junior officer leadership course to be complete early in a deployment cycle, so that fresh commanders have some skills for navigating a new unit where their knowledge and experience is dwarfed by their NCOs.
An official list of career milestones for both enlisted troops and officers would also help, the report found, so that promotions come alongside a broad range of experience, rather than back-to-back deployments.
And lastly, the report recommends reviewing the accessions process for SOF, as well as how instructors are chosen, to make sure the best leaders are working with the best raw materials.
But practically, the success of this review will come down to that cultural change.
"Are leaders actually willing to look at a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine and go, ‘You’re great. You’ve been great for the last eight years, but you know what? You need a break.’ " Clarke said.
In practice, leaders often hesitate to deal with a problem, either because they are afraid of punching a hole in their formation and blowing their readiness for combat, or because they are afraid that misconduct in their formation will be a black mark on their career advancement.
“That’s a cultural change of a shared understanding that the chain of command sanctions this,” Clarke said, of intervening ― and perhaps removing entirely ― someone who is acting out.
The other facet is that of treasuring of combat skill while disregarding personal conduct. To a special operations team, where the utmost skill can be the difference between life or death, it’s a tough sell to say that a leader should take someone out of their formation because he’s got a problem. Who’s to say everyone will come home without him?
Clarke shared a personal story about an Army specialist he once commanded, but who’d gotten into criminal trouble.
“He was well known, well thought of, had been in multiple deployments, but his character and what I had personally observed of him ― but his leaders all said said this guy should deploy,” Clarke said. " ‘This guy is so good in combat, we need him.’ I allowed him to deploy, and my gut said I should not. I allowed him to deploy and he committed crimes.' "
The National Defense Strategy, with its focus on near-peer competition, could also offer some relief, Clarke added. Shifting priorities to training local forces, for instance, could take some of the shine off of the counter-terror mission.
And if push comes to shove, there is still the threat of punishment for leaders who drop the ball.
“Leaders have been removed," he said. "Leaders have been and will continue to be held accountable.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT